Obama: Philosopher-in-Chief?

I’ve been making my way through Carlin Romano’s book America the Philosophical, hoping it would live up to its billing as a defense of America’s unacknowledged philosophical depth (a thesis I hold). But this doesn’t seem a very promising beginning:

[I]n the person of Barack Obama, we’ve ended up with our most cosmopolitan, philosopher-in-chief president since Woodrow Wilson.

That phrase might well be taken as a harsh criticism—the fact that Obama is an epigone of Wilson is precisely the problem—but it appears Romano means it as advertised. As he goes on to explain in the introduction:

[[T]he true nature of American culture and society today, its core philosophical openness and diversity, is ably represented by Barack Obama. Critics mock him as “professorial,” but they’ve got the wrong p word. In his commitment to multiple points of view, his pragmatist insistence on data and flexible thinking, his outreach to opponents, his stern refusal to be lured into the gutter of ad hominem denunciations, his acknowledgement of errors, he brings to fruition forces of American philosophical maturity that remain uncredited by almost all scholars and observers of this country.

Again, you can be forgiven this thinking this is parody, or some kind of bizarre parallel universe.

But anyway, if you want to see the keen mind of our Nobel Prize-winning philosopher king in action, nip over to the last two issues of the New York Review of Books, where Obama is featured in a long dialogue with novelist and theologian Marilynne Robinson. It contains such gems of Socratic wisdom as this:

And this is where conceptions of government can get us in trouble. Whenever I hear people saying that our problems would be solved without government, I always want to tell them you need to go to some other countries where there really is no government, where the roads are never repaired, where nobody has facilitated electricity going everywhere even where it’s not economical, where the postal system doesn’t work, or kids don’t have access to basic primary education. That’s the logical conclusion if, in fact, you think that government is the enemy.

And that, too, is a running strain in our democracy. That’s sort of in our DNA. We’re suspicious of government as a tool of oppression. And that skepticism is healthy, but it can also be paralyzing when we’re trying to do big things together.


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